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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Respect of Persons

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The abstract noun προσωπολημψία occurs in the NT four times. In three of these instances (Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 3:25) it is used with reference to God, in the fourth (James 2:1) with reference to man. The cognate verb προσωπολημπτἑω occurs once only in the NT in James 2:9. The masculine form προσωπολήμπτης occurs only once in Acts 10:34 and the negative adverb ἀπροσωπολήμπτως only once in 1 Peter 1:17. The compound is a late Hellenistic formation, appearing only in the NT and in ecclesiastical literature.

Before the formation of the compound, and along with it, the constituent elements were used together as separate words. The expression λαμβάνειν πρόσωπον is used in the Septuagint to translate נָשָׂא פָנִים, ‘to accept the face,’ i.e. to receive kindly or look favourably upon any one (cf. Leviticus 19:15). Originally the expression was a neutral one, involving no idea of improper partiality. When, however, it becomes a distinctive expression, as, e.g., in Galatians 2:6 (πρόσωπον θεὸς ἀνθρώπου οὐ λαμβάνει), it takes a worse sense. Lightfoot (in loc.) suggests that this is owing to the secondary meaning of πρόσωπον, ‘mask,’ so that πρόσωπον λαμβάνειν signifies ‘to regard the external circumstances of a man’-his rank, wealth, etc.-as opposed to his real intrinsic character. The phrase λαμβάνειν πρόσωπον occurs again in the NT in Luke 20:21. It also occurs in the Didache iv. 3: κρινεῖς δικαίως, οὐ λήψῃ πρόσωπον ἐλέγξαι ἐπὶ παραπτώμασιν. Alternative expressions with a similar meaning are βλέπειν εἰς πρόσωπον (Matthew 22:16, Mark 12:14) and θαυμάζειν πρόσωπον (Judges 1:16).

The NT instances of the compound word fall into three main groups. Acts 10:34, 1 Peter 1:17, and Romans 2:11 constitute the first of these. In Acts 10:34 St. Peter, addressing the assembled household of Cornelius, says, καταλαμβάνομαι ὅτι οὐκ ἐστιν προσωπολήμπτης ὁ θεός. On this assertion of God’s character, as free from partiality to one nation above other nations, the Apostle bases his repudiation of the exclusive covenant of Israel. In Romans 2:11 St. Paul asserts the same view with the similar phrase οὐ γὰρ ἐστιν προσωπολημψία παρὰ τῷ θεῷ. The expression in 1 Peter 1:17 describing God as τὸν ἀπροσωπολημπτως κρίνοντα κατὰ τὸ ἑκάστου ἔργον involves the same assertion, but it also involves a warning (with a possible reference to Deuteronomy 10:17) that, under the New Covenant as under the Old, God would show no favour to those whose deeds made them unworthy of it.

The two passages Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 3:25 form the second group. Both are concerned with the mutual relations of masters and slaves. In Ephesians 6:9 masters are counselled as to the right treatment of their slaves, ‘knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no respect of persons (προσωπολημψία) with him.’ In Colossians 3:25 the word occurs in the counsels addressed to the slaves. The passage is interesting as showing that προσωπολημψία, though usually exercised in favour of rank and power, might occasionally be employed on the opposite side (cf. Leviticus 19:15). The slave might assume that because man’s προσωπολημψία would usually be on the master’s side, there would be a corresponding προσωπολημψία of God on the slave’s side. St. Paul’s warning in this passage corrects any such mistaken impression.

The third group of passages consists of the two in St. James, the noun in James 2:1 and the corresponding verb in James 2:9. In the general context it is partiality in favour of the wealthy, well-dressed member of the Christian assembly that is condemned. In James 2:1 the noun is used in the plural, ἐν προσωπολημψίαις, with probable reference to the many ways in which partiality may display itself.

In the sub-apostolic writings προσωπολημψία occurs only in Polycarp, ad Phil. vi. 1. Elders are warned that they should be compassionate and merciful, ἀπεχόμενοι πάσης ὀργῆς, προσωπολημψίας, κρἰσεως ἀδίκου. The negative adverb occurs in 1 Clem. i. 3 (ἀπροσωπολήμπτως γὰρ πάντα ἑτοιεῖτε) and in Ep. Barn. iv. 12 (ὁ κἰριος ἀπροσωπολήμπγως κρινεῖ τὸν κόσμον).

Literature.-Sanday-Headlam, International Critical Commentary , ‘Romans’5, Edinburgh, 1902, p. 58; J. B. Lightfoot, Galatians 5, London, 1876, p. 108, Colossians and Philemon, new ed., do., 1879, p. 230; J. B. Major, James 3, do., 1910, p. 78.

Dawson Walker.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Respect of Persons'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/r/respect-of-persons.html. 1906-1918.

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